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Hydroquinone and its Alternatives: Ingredient Decoder

Photo: Elure

If I were to draw a map of my face, the brown spots dotting my features would be the equivalent of capital cities. There’s one on my nose and another beside my lip. Then there’s the Shanghai of all spots: the raised circle above my right eyebrow, which hovers halfway between freckle and mole territory. These so-called beauty marks have always bothered me, and my first recourse was to seek over-the-counter products with hydroquinone. This lightening agent works by inhibiting skin’s melanin production. But as I recently learned, hydroquinone can actually be dangerous for your skin. Learn why after the jump!

Melanin is the pigment your skin produces that gives it a brown color. Skin can increase melanin production as a defense mechanism against harmful UV rays, which is why I blame my brown spots on a childhood spent under the strong Floridian sun. Hydroquinone works in two ways: by lightening existing spots and preventing more hyperpigmentation. Over the years, I tried a variety of drugstore products with a low 2% concentration and didn’t see any dramatic results, but I’ve read that prescription formulas with a higher 4% concentration can be very effective. 

Yet hydroquinone has many potential pitfalls. First, it can be irritating and actually make your skin more sensitive to sun exposure. More alarmingly, hydroquinone may also be a carcinogen: lab studies have shown that it can cause leukemia in mice, though there’s no conclusive evidence yet about its effects on humans. Nonetheless, it’s already been banned in countries like France due to safety concerns. While many American dermatologists continue to prescribe hydroquinone, I would advise anyone trying to lighten their freckles or brown spots to steer clear. Why risk long term health damage for a payoff that only goes skin deep? 

Luckily, there are lots of other products out there that can lighten spots without the risks of hydroquinone. Here are some of my favorites:   

  • Elure Advanced Skin Lightening Lotion. A brand new line endorsed by Allure and other mags, Elure patented an ingredient called melanozyme to gently reduce melanin levels. I’ve been using their lotion for the past week, and my brown spots really do appear lighter. The jury’s still out on whether they will fade for good, but I’m optimistic. 
  • SkinCeuticals Phyto+ Corrective Gel. My old standby, the kojic acid and arbutin in this formula are natural alternatives to hydroquinone that help break up hyperpigmentation. Just keep in mind that you have to be patient to see results.
  • SIRCUIT® Cosmeceuticals Sircuit Weapon. This serum has a hefty dose of vitamin C, which is a proven skin brightener and helps reduce the appearance of brown spots.


Whether you’re battling sun damage or other concerns, you can find all of our favorite skincare products in the Birchbox Shop.

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